‘Emphatic’ quotation marks and consonant doubling

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, one on errant punctuation and one on a sometimes tricky aspect of spelling and morphology.

The ‘emphatic’ use of quotation marks summarises accepted uses of quotation marks, including scare quotes, before considering a common but non-standard use:

Sometimes people use quotation marks to stress a word or phrase, and this clashes with the general understanding of how the marks – and scare quotes – are properly used. In a comment to my recent article on the use of apostrophes, Kristen said she found this habit troublesome, offering the example ‘fresh’ fish, which inadvertently casts doubt on the freshness of the fish – the very opposite impression to what’s intended.

If you saw a window sign for ‘homemade’ stew or a label promising ‘delicious’ waffles, would the punctuation affect how you imagine the food? What about a cosmetic product that’s ‘good’ for your hair, or a claim that a service is ‘free’?

All the examples are real, found in the “Quotation Mark” Abuse pool on Flickr. My post presents the case for the defence, then provides some truly puzzling examples.


Patterns of consonant doubling looks at whether and when to double consonants at the end of suffixed words. Fluent speakers, who tend to have a feel for the rules,

know that nod forms nodded and red redder (doubling the d), yet brood forms brooded and dead deader (no doubling). Turning flop into an adjective by adding the suffix –y gives us floppy, doubling the p, but soap becomes soapy, with no doubling.

Vowels play an important role. Notice the short vowel in nod and flop and the relatively long ones in brood and soap. Short vowels tend to mean we double the final consonant; long vowels tend to mean we don’t. The latter are often detectable by the word’s ending with e after a consonant: compare mop (mopped) and mope (moped), tap (tapped) and tape (taped), pin (pinned) and pine (pined), and similar pairs.

The article goes on to explain the role played by syllable stress (compare offered and referred), notes exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions, and concludes with the best possible rule for dealing with this messy area.

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome here or at Macmillan; older articles on words and language are available in the archive.

12 Responses to ‘Emphatic’ quotation marks and consonant doubling

  1. Craig says:

    For thousands of examples of humorously misused quotes: http://www.unnecessaryquotes.com/.

  2. “Exceptions to the exceptions” — ha! I once saw a sign on a public restroom boasting “Open” with the quotes. Made me chuckle and think, is it REALLY open — or just kind of? Typically, I forgo usage of quotes for emphasis, relying more on boldness, italics, or differing colors/font sizes. I find myself using the single quotes as a sort of paraphrase, or even for common knowledge/phrase, such as, ‘They say the Nile used to run from East to West.’

  3. I have long felt that standardized punctuation is more important than spelling. I’ve never read anything by Cormac McCarthy.

  4. Stan says:

    Craig: Thanks. I’ve linked to that site before but figured everyone knows about it by now. (Cue comments to the contrary…)

    TFP: I’d say that reaction is normal. Even when there’s no real doubt that what’s in quotes is sincerely meant, we’re conditioned to pause and wonder.

    Jesse: Hmm, interesting idea. I don’t mind nonstandard spelling or punctuation when it’s artfully done, and FWIW I love McCarthy’s prose.

  5. Tom says:

    In my high-school yearbook (1962) a large number of the kids [that was long ago when I was a kid myself] used quotation marks around their names when they signed, e.g., Best wishes, “Mylie*”. I don’t think I’ve run across that anywhere else.
    As for “homemade”, I would find somewhere else to eat.
    [*] obviously not his real name

  6. astraya says:

    On Friday my intermediate ESL class was learning about mobile phones and related technology. At the end of the lesson I realised that I had written both ‘dialling’ and ‘dialing’ (which word, among others, is anachronistic with modern technology).
    The spell-checker here red-underlines ‘dialling’ (and ‘realised’). In real life, I would use ‘dialing’, and not just because the spell-checker says so – I unapologetically use ‘realised’ (and unapologetically use ‘unapologetically’, even though that is red-underlined as well).

  7. Stan says:

    Tom: That’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve encountered that custom before, except with nicknames of course. I wonder what function it served.

    astraya: Well spotted. Variation in our own usage more usually occurs in pronunciation than in spelling, I find, though obviously not for everyone. For my part I’m a resolutely double-l dialler.

  8. mollymooly says:

    buses or busses? For some it depends on whether it’s a noun or a verb.

  9. astraya says:

    I have been thinking about the possible other means of indicating emphasis in signs like these, and have tentatively concluded that there is no infallible way of doing of this.
    For word processed/printed signs, one can use bold or italic, or underlining, or a different font, or a larger point size.
    For handwritten signs, one can use underlining or larger writing.
    For (I don’t know what they’re called but the signs made up of individual letters, quite often outside schools, banks and churches) there really aren’t any other options.
    In all cases, there is the option of *asterisks* for emphasis, but this isn’t common outside of the internet.
    Yes, using quotation marks for emphasis has the unfortunate side-effect of appearing ironic, but rather than sneering, maybe the people on the websites dedicated to chronicling these signs might make a “constructive suggestion” as to how else to indicate emphasis.
    By coincidence, this morning one of my Facebook friends posted this link, which has a lot of sneering: http://distractify.com/people/the-30-most-unnecessary-uses-of-quotation-marks-in-history/

  10. Stan says:

    mollymooly: I didn’t know that people made a distinction on that basis. For some, bussed and bussing indicate kissing.

    astraya: There’s no universal solution, but there’s usually at least one unambiguous option available, typically underlines, bold, capitals, or larger font. Quotation marks have considerable currency for this purpose, but seem unlikely to gain real status in the near future.

  11. William Hofmeyr says:

    Apropos ‘fresh’ fish:

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